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Is experimentation the key becoming a more human-centric Organisation?

14th March 2023

I’ve been reflecting on a day spent with the wonderful people at Mayden recently. For those that don’t know them, Mayden are a Corporate Rebels bucket list organisation who have flattened their hierarchy and embraced agile across all their activities. Needless to time spent with them is always thought provoking.

Are there only two types of Organisation?

Sweeping generalisation alert: I wonder if there are only two types of organisations.  Those that have recognised the folly and toxicity of the command and control approach to management and rejected it, and those that haven’t.

Now here’s the thing.  Most leaders of most organisations would feel that their approach to management was not “command and control.” yet it is only a tiny minority of organisations who are, genuinely, committed to a path where the tacit assumptions that underpin command and control are entirely absent.  Indeed, many accepted best practices are built on one or more of those assumptions.

Another way of framing it is to consider which of the following open questions better describes your organisations’ approach to people:

  1. How do we create the conditions where people find great intrinsic reward in giving the best of their whole self at work? or
  2. What are the best levers, carrots, sticks, perks and coercions that we have to give us the best return on our salary bill?

These two questions set you on very different paths, so is there any middle ground?  A question I’ll return to.

The convergent evolution of progressive organisations

Bill Gore set up W.L Gore to create an organisation entirely free of bureaucracy. Jos de Blok set-up Buurtzorg to reconnect nurses with the job that they loved and to give their patients the best, personalised care. Chris May developed Mayden with a desire to do something better for its people than follow the herd with conventional management.  Although very different in size, sector, era and geography there are spooky similarities in the norms and everyday practices you would find in all three organisations.   And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised; if you set-out to create your organisations to fundamentally “work with the grain” of humans; our psychology, sociology, and anthropology we will, by iteration and emergence, arrive in a similar place.

If we set out now to invent the norms and mechanisms of our organisations based on what we know about humans and human performance, what we’d come up with would bear no relation to what we see in most organisations today. 

But many of us are not starting our organisation from scratch

Bill, Jos and Chris all bore the scare tissue of experiencing command and control management and that galvanised them to create something different.  Those different “somethings” were all built on very different and better informed assumptions about people.  Most of us are not in that situation.  The organisations that most of us lead are work in progress, not a blank sheet of paper.  Many of us feel that we have inherited a situation which is not of our design, very likely there are bits about it that we don’t like and perceive those bits to be hard to change.

In reality we are all on a journey

No start-up has ever scaled and flourished into an organisation and got everything right first time.  Snags, glitches, wrong calls and failures are inevitable and essential to finding the right path for your unique situation.  Even the poster child progressive organisations have had these set-backs along the way, they are quite open about them.

This is perhaps where we find the middle ground, every organisation will have its own level of comfort or discomfort with the conventional approaches to management.  The more discomfort there is, the more rapid the evolution will be.

What determines how quickly your organisation will evolve?

So, assuming you ascribe more to Q1 (How do we create the conditions where people find great intrinsic reward in giving the best of their whole self at work?) than Q2, how do we get started and how quickly can we progress?  Here I’m reminded of something that Margaret Heffernan said when speaking with Lisa Gill on her excellent Leadermorphosis podcast.

“…do not think you can think your way to the answer. You can’t, it’s impossible. You have to do something different and see how the system responds. From that you’ve learned something that you can build on. But absolutely, none of us can solve these real world problems in our heads. It’s not physics, it’s not math. It’s human beings working together. And the way people learn to work together, is by working together.”

Is experimentation the difference that makes the difference?

The practice of experimentation is the key. Experimentation is largely absent in command and control organisations, and woven into just about everyone’s roles in progressive organisations. Based on our research into change-enabled organisations, experimentation is the “how” that applies to the majority of the 26 areas of practice that our research identified.
Experimentation is also, in and of itself, a practice that helps people find great intrinsic reward and creates opportunities for them to give the best of their whole self at work. It is also the engine-room of ever-improving ways of working. So, both the process and the output are accelerants to the evolution.

Two types of organisation?

Absolutely not. Some are more command and control than others, some more human-centric. But if you are committed to a journey from the former to the later, giving people the time, the safe climate, and the autonomy to develop their own safe-to-try experiments will really help build momentum. What’s stopping you from experimenting with it?

Afterword

The Vitality Index (VI) engenders the habit of experimentation in every team in the organisation. Based on our research, The VI is able to identify the three (out of 26) areas of practice that, if changed will be most beneficial to that specific team at the current moment in time. These insights, in combination with some independent facilitation from us and some inspiration from the Vitality playbook get the teams started on their journey towards ever-better ways of working. This is not just experimentation, this is change that the team own, change that is emergent and responsive and most importantly change that people feel good about.

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About Ben Simpson

I believe that work should be joyful and rewarding. I love to help scaling organisations with employee experience, adaptability and ability to innovate. Together we can unleash you people's collective potential

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